The Beth Din of America has disqualified the rabbinic court of the National Council of Young Israel from settling a dispute with one of its affiliate congregations over the proposed sale of NCYI’s Manhattan headquarters to a residential developer for $5.3 million.
In a July 17 administrative ruling, the Beth Din said the rabbis of the NCYI’s "Vaad Halacha," or rabbinic court, "must be stricken" from resolving a dispute with the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue because the Vaad previously approved the sale while acting in its capacity as religious adviser to the NCYI board of directors in August 2002.
However, the Beth Din ruling upholds the jurisdiction of the NCYI Vaad to hear the case under the condition it appoints new judges unconnected with the case.
The unusual ruling, signed by Beth Din director Rabbi Yonah Reiss, leaves both sides unhappy and some troubled about the future of the process.
"It is encouraging to see that the Beth Din recognized that the National Council’s Vaad is not a proper decision-maker in this case," said YIFA attorney Michele Pahmer. "However, the notion that the same Vaad that the Beth Din disqualified from adjudicating this dispute can be expected to select neutral and fair [judges] is troubling in the extreme."
"We are gratified that the [Beth Din] recognizes that under the NCYI Constitution, its Vaad is the exclusive body for determining disputes arising under Jewish law, and appreciate that the Beth Din has recognized that they lack jurisdiction over the matter," said NCYI attorney Ken Fisher.
But when asked about the disqualification, Fisher declined to comment.
In fact, Rabbi Reiss said his group plans to continue to oversee the process.
In remanding the case back to the NCYI Vaad, Rabbi Reiss called on the Vaad to select a new panel of three rabbis by Aug. 1 to hear the case.
"Until such panel is duly convened, the Beth Din will not consider its role to have been completed," he wrote.
"In order to ensure the absolute fairness of the Din Torah process … the Beth Din requests from the Vaad a list of three impartial judges to hear the case," according to the ruling, obtained by The Jewish Week.
The judges "should be prepared to attest at the outset of the proceedings that they have had no prior involvement in this case and were not involved in any prior Vaad deliberations concerning this matter."
Rabbi Reiss apparently agreed partially with the written arguments filed by Young Israel of Fifth Avenue officials that allowing the current Vaad to arbitrate the case "presents an insurmountable conflict of interest."
YIFA opposes the building sale, claiming it would violate Jewish law by putting its congregation out of business.
YIFA recently asked the Beth Din, affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union (a rival of the NCYI), to step in. YIFA is also suing NCYI in state civil court.
Last month YIFA asked Rabbi Reiss to issue an order of religious excommunication against NCYI for failing to appear before the Beth Din. None has been issued.
The NCYI Vaad argued that it has jurisdiction and rejects appearing before an independent religious court. The NCYI Vaad is "the proper forum for the resolution of this matter," said its chairman, Rabbi Peretz Steinberg, in a June 27 letter obtained by The Jewish Week.
Rabbi Steinberg is also spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Queens Valley in Flushing.
But YIFA attorney Joel Cohen outlined a series of "compelling conflicts" faced by Rabbi Steinberg and others that should bar them from deciding the case.
In a July 7 memo, Cohen said Rabbi Steinberg has "become an advocate for the National Council in this case," providing written support for the sale.
Cohen also contended an alleged conflict for Rabbi Herschel Kurzrock of the Young Israel of Kensington, which is also a tenant at NCYI’s headquarters at 3 W. 16th St., where space is rented for his group, the Rabbinical Alliance of America.
More broadly, Cohen argued that all Young Israel rabbis have an inherent conflict in hearing the case, a contention apparently rejected by Rabbi Reiss.
"No rabbi affiliated with the National Council can serve as a neutral dayan, or judge, in this case in light of the National Council’s potential liability if the sale is prohibited," Cohen argued.
"The National Council’s own rabbis cannot possibly be expected to impartially decide an issue that could result in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against their parent organization, nor would it be fair to put any Young Israel rabbi in the position to do so."
Cohen affirmed that Vaad member Rabbi Mordechai Willig has privately supported YIFA’s efforts to have the case heard by an independent rabbinic court.
"Rabbi Willig indicated to us that because the Vaad consists of Young Israel rabbis, they would not be competent dayanim, or judges, any more than [YIFA] Rabbi Israel Wohlgelernter himself would be," Cohen said.
But Rabbi Reiss did not dismiss all Young Israel rabbis from hearing the case. He in fact charged the Vaad with selecting its replacement judges.
He also gave YIFA until Aug. 15 to raise objections to the Vaad’s selections.
Sources indicated this week that it was unlikely the NCYI would comply with the Aug. 1 deadline.